Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mastering the Art of Blog Writing

So last night Wendy and I watched the movied "Julie and Julia", a lovely, supposedly true story about Julia Childs in the 40's and 50's, struggling to publish a cookbook, and Julie Porter(?) in the 2000's, who is inspired by Julia Child's recipes and stories as she struggles to "become a writer".

I identified with Julie for many reasons: she's working a regular day job and trying to write in her spare time; she has a wonderfully supportive spouse who can't quite make up for her own lack of follow through; her delightful wit stems from having a certain contentness in her insecurity; she's sensetive and introspective (moody and selfish) and she makes a mess every day in the kitchen.

So Julie starts a blog, and within a year she has lots of readers, gets featured in the New York Times, and then offered deals for books, movies and stage shows.

I watched her for the whole year - OK, two hours - and I thought to myself, this should be Easy!  I could do this!  All I need is a gimmick! 

That's what Julie did.  Julie's gimmick was that she made all 500+ recipes in Julia Child's book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in one year, and blogged about it every day.  All I need to do is find some adventure I can do every day and blog about it.  The possibilities are endless.

The most obvious is home repairs and improvements, because that has already produced so much comedy (stupidity) in my life.  But that's a bit more expensive than cooking.  I could write about my exercise plan (Walking, Yoga, and Shovelglove), which I'm going to start as soon as I find a compelling reason, like a coronary bypass.  I could write about parenting, but I'm sure I would offend the six most important people in my life. 

So the endless blogging possibilities immediately whittle themselves down from overwhelming to managable, to nothing.  And worse than that, in addition to a topic, I'm missing all the rest of the ingredients essential to this blogging success recipe: time, focus, and passion.

The difficulty with time is obvious, I'm sure you all have smilar challenges when you consider adding an extra hobby into your life.  I have a full time job plus 10 hours a week commuting; I have a wife whose company I enjoy and five kids in the most active stages of life; I have scouting activities with Chad - this year bicycling;  I serve in the church; I have a home and a yard to maintain and chickens to feed. 

I don't know - maybe I just don't have my priorities straight.  Julie was certainly able to put everything else on hold.  Of course she had a small apartment, no church, and no children, but that's beside the point.  She focused and got it done.

Focus has been a challenge for me since I was about 17.  I'm always victim to the new thought, need, or distraction that comes along.  This can be fun in writing humor, but it's not so helpful in getting things done.

Passion.  What do I really care enough about to share my excitement with others?  Hmm - let's ask it another way.  Do I ever get excited about anything?  Nope - nothing outside of ice cream anyway.

But I do have one possible solution to the topic problem.  I have a new harmonica and I'm learning to play.  I have the hymnbook and the primary children's songbook.  I could learn to play a song a day and blog about it for year!

What do you think?  You are getting excited to read about this aren't you?  Maybe this will work!

Well, I might try that later.  I'm going to see what the chickens are up to today. . . . and I'll get some ice cream on my way out.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Happy Weekend!

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Hey, Readers, give me a suggestion for a title for this post, would you?

There’s something wrong with our car.

It’s a 1999 Chevrolet Suburban. We’ve had it for almost four years – long enough to make it definitively ours by all the markings, inside and out. (If you want a vivid record of a rockin’-hot series of tic-tac-toe games once played in the car, just look at the leather in the second row of seats)

Well, so this car has been pretty good to our family, and in return, we have actually maintained it – as in, oil, water, filters, and all that good stuff gets changed when it’s supposed to, unlike some previous vehicles I have owned for a while and then sold for scrap.

So we think of it as a good car, but now it’s giving us some serious problems. I could give you all the technical details – about sensors, plugs, wires, baskets, nodules, timing, fanimolds, inflectors, protruders, etc., but it misses the point. I don’t mean that there’s a mechanical malfunction. I think this is more of a spiritual thing. I think the car is possessed by left-wing anarchists.

Either that or a chicken.

The whole business started about six weeks ago with an absolute gusher of a coolant leak. Wendy got it home, and we “hired” (cajoled) two mechanically-minded young friends to repair it, which they did.

But then it wouldn’t start, until and unless I changed the spark plugs. I don’t think it actually needed new plugs, but it was feeling a little pouty. You know how you sometimes buy an ice cream for a kid after the dentist fills a cavity? Same deal.

Then it ran fine for a while . . . like, an hour. And then it wouldn’t start for anything.

Then it got on a tow truck and went to the mechanic, who repaired it with the following series of operations: he A) put in the key, and B) turned it.

Yep, that’s it: started right up. That’ll be one hundred twenty-five dollars, please!

That subversive Suburban (nice alliteration there!) worked great for another three weeks. The countdown began for the liftoff of our summer vacation/reunion trip, and it started pulling random pranks. A little cough here, a little hesitation there – like me after a bite of spicy curry that is beyond my threshold. Only I’m sure this was totally intentional.

I bought it another set of spark plugs as a bribe, and it did everything I wanted for four hours. Then back to it’s old tricks.

No, not a chicken. They’re more consistent. I think it is working with the Iranian nuclear negotiators.

The misfiring got worse and worse until we (Wendy) knew that it wasn’t safe to pull the trailer from Oregon into the burning desert of southern Utah and back.

My judgment is a little different. If five out of eight cylinders are firing, that’s 62% success! That’s only a 38% chance that the family will be sitting on the side of a remote road in 100-degree heat waiting to be rescued by a tow truck operator using the handle “bean dip bouquet”.

So we rented a mini-van, which was reasonably comfortable, and very reliable, and had a great, but short, vacation in Utah. Meanwhile the “Subver-ban” was on it’s best behavior at the mechanic’s shop, and he refused to fix a car that wasn’t broken, but was only possessed by the ghost of an anarchist Iranian chicken.

You may say, “How frustrating! These cars make themselves so indispensible to us and then seem to take on a mind of their own!” But I’ve grown through this and many other similar “character-building experiences”. They give you perspective, you know? Through this I have gained confidence: I am now more confident than ever that the machines are literally conspiring against us, like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Mankind should have never entered the Machine age.  Insetad we should have knocked down the door and thrown in a stun grenade and then sealed the door with a million yards of concrete.

But of course we wouldn’t have concrete, or grenades, so we would have to use potatoes.

And I wouldn’t be typing on the laptop while listening to Pandora. I would hand-write this missive and then publish it by sending it to . . . hmm. . . the Shinkle family!

Because there’s about thirty-five of them, and I would still have more followers than Wendy.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Extra Meetings

A couple of long days yesterday and today, but I have some good stories on tap for this weekend.  I have to keep my list of followers growing so that Wendy doesn't win the contest!

Meanwhile, because I'm swamped, Wendy just bypassed the tooth fairy completely and gave Lillian a dollar and told her to go put it under her pillow herself. 

A good manager always delegates.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Building Readership

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Man's Best Feathered Friends

It’s time we talk about chickens.

The first six months of this year have been a time of rich personal growth. I have learned much about relationships, emotion, and hygiene. I have come to better appreciate the simple things in life, like fresh eggs.

And I owe it all to my contraband chickens.

Let me first state to any Monmouth city law enforcement officer who may be reading, by way of disclaimer, that any and all references to chickens in my back yard are purely fictional! And I don’t have any reason to even care what the city ordinance says on the topic! Because . . . why would I? Although I did find out, after my nine lovely ladies were all settled in their coop, that the guy who puts up the city ordinances on the city website was like ten years behind and that chickens have been banned for years and that gun-blazing police are rampaging from neighborhood to neighborhood evicting helpless hens to a future certain to include poultry seasoning!

(Add lemon peel and chipotle sauce and bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes).

We have nine birds which we got as chicks, named Cacciatori, Tetrazini, Marsala, Drumstick, Teriyaki, Buffalo Wings, Nibblers, Pot Pie, and Shake’N’Bake.

My ride-share buddy, Tom, has been bragging about his chickens for years. We ate some of his over-priced, farm-fresh eggs and loved them. Then we decided, as a family, that we should raise chickens ourselves.

That particular family meeting came several weeks after we had the chicks living in our garage. I was teasing Wendy that the chickens could be her Mother’s Day present. The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Wendy: not my present – you’re the one who wanted the chickens, not me.
John: Very funny! We only have chickens because you and the kids wanted them.
Wendy: Na-ahh!
(dramatic pause)
John and Wendy: You mean . . . you didn’t . . . OH NOOOOOO!

So here we were, the accidental chicken farmers. In retrospect, I am sure it was me that had the subconscious need for chickens. At the time it was probably just a craving for another unfinished project, because I was running low.

It started out to be purely a business arrangement, with no emotional connection or lifetime commitment. Their occupation is to produce eggs and garden manure. I am their employer and landlord. They work for chicken feed.

But as I fed them, shoveled their poop, built a luxurious home for them and protected them from ferocious predators (Pumpkin and Charlie), I came to understand that there is much more that chickens can do for me.

They are my emotional counterparts.

You see, chickens seem to have a dual nature: one part stupid bird, and the other part human male. It’s hard to explain but when I stare into a chicken’s eyes, I feel understood.

Chickens themselves have only three discernable emotions:

First: What’s that thing? Can I eat it?
Second: Run away! Yes, I know I’m climbing on your head – it’s as far as I can run!
Third: Ouch! Wow! Ouch! Today’s egg is on it’s waaay!

This is simplicity any man can appreciate.

With the first two points alone, they could be my soul mates! And I could also mention that they sympathize with men who cry . . . or . . . so I hear. Chickens are not criers, (see the list of three emotions above) but if you happen to be an emotional man, and you catch yourself choking up in front of a chicken, it’s OK. She will listen. She will understand. Let the tears flow. She will still respect you. . . . I’m told.

And the third point? It seems too much to ask that something so small and helpless would make my breakfast every day, but they do it, and they do it gladly.

So you see, my Fictional! chickens have found a solid home in my heart. They are useful, economical, helpful and loyal.

After two or three years, they’ll stop laying and become senior citizen hens. When that happens, as their names suggest, these loving, listening friends will be plucked, skinned, quartered, and tossed into the freezer, to be enjoyed as a family entree.

As I said: Lifetime Commitment.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Driving Mrs Boyack

This week our family traveled from Oregon to Utah and back – almost 2000 miles – to a family reunion. Wendy drove about 1800 of those miles, while I acted as co-pilot, checking distances and refilling her water bottle.

Obviously I have no Chauvinistic hang-up with having to be the driver on family outings “because I’m the man”. Wendy and I did have disagreements about this in the early years of our marriage. I like to drive and she likes to drive – nothing wrong there, it’s something we have in common. It’s just that there are some stylistic differences between her driving and mine.

Wendy’s driving style is to drive a safe speed, notice everything, put no excessive strain on the engine, and provide a smooth ride for her passengers. Mine is to get to the intended destination without physically making contact with other vehicles or embedding small animals of more than 50 lbs mass into the grill.

Wendy’s observation skills are amazing, to say the least. She notices wildlife near the road, such as deer, pheasants, and mice. She notices billboards and landmarks, and she notices wrecks and dangerous objects from miles away.

But mostly she notices police.

She notices police driving, or especially parked in sneaky locations behind shrubs or on overpasses. She sees them whether they are in patrol cars or unmarked cars, on a motorcycle or out of uniform watching their child play soccer. When Wendy sees the police while driving, everyone knows because she’ll stomp the brakes to slow down from five mph under the speed limit to ten mph under, and she’ll yell, “Everybody DOWN!”

This is because the kids might be doing absolutely anything illegal or dangerous, such as sitting in a seatbelt not approved for small children, or touching their sister.

Still, the reason I generally let Wendy drive is not because she’s the better driver, it’s because I’m the better passenger. If the car takes a sudden lurch or gets a little close to another vehicle while I’m the passenger, I just look at it like an amusement park ride. When it’s over, we’re all safe, and we can go get a corn dog.

As my passenger, Wendy’s take on the experience probably aligns nicely with her view of airplane crashes – I haven’t asked her, but I’m judging by the screaming, the hyperventilation, and the grip she places on the entry handle.

You know, if she would just close her eyes, it would probably be a lot more comfortable for her.

She also insists on giving me a lot of directions, such as “Stay within the lines, please!” or “Watch the road, would you!” Sometimes her directions are self-contradicting, like “turn right at the next light”, and “Do NOT turn right across three lanes of traffic!”

In the last few years I have had the opportunity to have my co-workers as passengers, and, as it turns out, Wendy’s view of my driving is not unique.

Mike told me “I can understand using the shoulder to go around a car turning left – and I can even understand doing that at 60 mph, but not when there is another car using the shoulder!”

Tom says, “Stop far enough behind the other vehicle that you can still see its tires, please!”

They both claim to get muscle strain from involuntary attempts to hit the brakes.

Officer Cummins of the OHP has a different view of my driving. He hasn’t seen me driving while thumbing through my notebook looking for phone numbers, or using both hands to scratch that itch under my left shoulder blade. He simply thinks I should slow down.

He and I chat about it every few weeks on Highway 99 between Rickreall and Amity. He’s a good man, in his 30’s, with a wife and two children. He loves his job, and recently bought a wood smoker.

I admit it, Wendy is a very good driver, and I'm needing improvement.  So in the interest of marital harmony, and general laziness, I let Wendy drive about 28 hours of barren Western landscape.

In addition to my copilot duties I played Sudoku on my blackberry and learned how to solve the Rubiks cube.  I also worked on my observation skills, so that I can one day become as good a driver as Wendy. I’m getting better! I even noticed a lady having a baby on the freeway – with three patrol cars, lights flashing, and feet up against the side windows.

. . . After Wendy pointed it out.